A missing trick: Non-alcoholic beer

Why non-alcoholic beer could be a golden market in the UK’s capital.

In the 1980s non-alcoholic beer hit European shelves but failed to impress. Rave culture had begun to take hold of the UK and even high-profile advertisements by the likes of Billy Connolly could not compensate for the dour taste and lack of kick. Young and old alike just couldn’t see the point.

However, the atmosphere in London is changing. Could this once failing product turn into a success?

The facts are already pointing that way. A report by independent retail analyst Kantar Worldpanel revealed that sales have grown by 40 per cent across all retailers in the past year. Consumers have downed 15 million bottles from Tesco alone where sales have soared by 47 per cent. The stunning rise has been attributed to an increasing product range and improving taste as well as a changing target market: a health–conscious population, constantly subjected to graphic NHS campaigns, are more inclined to give up alcohol to gain a few years. This is all against the backdrop of a world where the consumption of alcohol is diminishing - UK beer sales fell by 4.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2013 alone – which makes the feat only more impressive.

However, the viewpoint of this article is that marketing gurus are missing a key group of London’s population: Muslims. The 2011 census Office for National Statistics showed that the proportion of Muslims in London had risen to 12.4 per cent of the population, with young British Asians increasingly flocking to the capital. Islam condemns the act of drinking alcohol as haram (forbidden) but, according to The Economist, several significant Saudi and Egyptian Ayatollahs have issued fatwas allowing Muslims to shake of their shackles and fill their glasses with the non-alcoholic stuff. The product has now swept across the Arab world.

The Middle East has already seen sales of non-alcoholic beer booming. Figures released by Euromonitor reveal last year 2.2 billion litres were downed with almost a third landing in the sin-free stomachs of middle-eastern Muslims. Even in Iran, where the state laments Western decadence, Iranians are drinking five times as much as they did four years ago.

What’s the draw? In the Gulf States, young Islamic socialites yearn for a taste of the west’s glamorous lifestyle without compensating their faith. Meanwhile it allows conservatives to drink in Saudia Arabia and UAE – countries infamous for their strict Islamic laws banning alcohol – without irking the authorities.  

So, big business can definitely be made by targeting London’s Islamic minority. The trick is tapping into it. Taybeh - a Palestinian brewer - have successfully done that by emphasising the Islamic side of their product: their label is coloured green, the colour of Islam, and on every bottle the word Halal (permissible) is inscribed in Arabic. A similar product is yet to launch here. In the UK, the British Heart Foundation has found that the number of shisha bars, which British Asian Muslims relish, has rocketed by 210 per cent in the past five years. A launch of a perfectly halal partnership between shisha and non-alcoholic beer could prove fruitful.   

Aside from the money, introducing non-alcoholic beer would have a significant cultural impact. Alcohol is embedded in society’s social gatherings from apéritif cocktails to Friday night pub trips. Faced with this conundrum, Muslims retreat into packs: Prevention is better than cure. Non-alcoholic beer could help bridge the gap between Muslims and their counterparts in a society which is increasingly worried about their social marginalisation. With the hate towards ‘radical Islam’ only rising following the brutal killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby, it’s a desperately needed step to Islamic integration.

Non-alcoholic beer is causing a stir. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.